I go by many names and titles. I am Audrey: a wife, mother, friend, writer, and case manager among many others. I answer to different names depending on the situation or who I’m dealing with. A name is more than just a word used for identification, it also incorporates relationships and other situations, often with emotion attached.
The title “mother” is synonymous with one of the most loving and intimate relationships we will ever have, and is reserved for one of the most significant people in most of our lives. We don’t go around casually referring to others as mom, mommy, or other variations of this precious moniker because of the level of status and significance it holds for the one who brought us into the world, loved, and nurtured us through childhood.
The question, then, becomes what do we call a stepmom?
For many, a stepmom is also an important part of our life. She is one who may have joined our life a bit later than a biological parent; but, she becomes a dedicated member of our family circle and performs many of the same duties as a parent. It seems as though she deserves a title fitting of the close proximity she has within the home and hearts of the children she cares for; yet, to call her “mother” may be deemed offensive or threatening to a natural mother.
I recently read a story on social media about funny things young children say. A preschool teacher shared that one of her students reported to his class during sharing time that he had a new stepmother. The teacher asked what her name was. The precocious young tyke further explained that his dad calls her “Tiffany”, but his mom refers to the new woman in their lives as “whore.” Yikes!
I’m glad to say that I haven’t had quite this negative of an experience; but, I have personally felt how loaded of a word “mom” is when referring to a stepparent and navigating through a relationship with the mother of one’s stepchildren.
My first experience at being anything other than just “Audrey” was after I began dating my now husband. The children became accustomed to my presence and began to develop associations with me as someone more established in their home than a casual visitor. I was someone who went places with them, helped take care of them, and was very special to their father. Somehow, just my name didn’t demonstrate enough affection or ownership of me, and they toyed with different things to call me.
My youngest stepson, who was just four at the time, was the flag bearer of this new phase of our relationship. I recall one morning when I visited before school. He saw me at the front door and came excitedly running to greet me while yelling “Egg! Egg!” As it turns out, he couldn’t quite pronounce my name, and “Egg” was his best approximation. His three older siblings found this to be hilarious and quickly adopted their little brother’s example, jokingly calling me “Egg” for the next six months.
During the time of “Egg”, my stepkids began experimenting with different names for me. Sometimes they would accidentally call me “mom”, and for a while, my stepdaughter did so purposefully. For the first five years, I was in their lives (they ranged from ages 4-11 when I first met them), and their mother’s involvement was sporadic. I realized that for the youngest, he didn’t seem to equate the word “mom” with just one person, but with the concept of a loving and present female caregiver. I was touched that any of them would, even accidentally, call me “mom”, but I also knew this was potentially dangerous territory!
Whenever they called me “mom”, I gently reminded them that I cared very much about them, but I was not their mother. They had a mother, I was in no way trying to replace or overshadow her, and I respected her right to retain that title with them.
When we announced our engagement to the kids, we explained that we would officially become a family and I would be their stepmom, while my husband would be my children’s stepdad. We explained that they could call us (or refer to us) as variations of stepmom, bonus mom, our first names, or whatever made them feel comfortable. All our kids have settled on calling us by our first names, though they will introduce us to others as their stepparents.
I have no doubt that every other stepfamily will eventually cross the bridge of what to call one another. The choice made is a very personal one that needs to fit each set of circumstances and relationships. Many hearts and emotions are attached to the symbolism of a special name.
The other parent may feel threatened or as though efforts are being made to erase or replace them.
The children may alternate between genuine affection for a stepparent and the desire to cement the bond they feel with a more personal title and feelings of guilt about how this will make their biological parent feel.
The options for this situation are many. Most will probably not choose to go by something as stiff and formal as “stepmother.” We might be introduced in those terms, but we will usually answer to something a bit more informal like our first name or maybe something like “Mom Jennifer.”
If unsure about what’s appropriate, I would encourage all stepparents in this predicament to discuss it with their partner and the children. What does everyone feel comfortable with? If the children wish to use a more personal name, maybe there’s another nickname they could come up with that expresses their esteem for their stepparent without stepping on anyone else’s toes or depreciating the value of the word “mom.”
It is important to maintain respect and appropriate boundaries with other parents. No matter what, these people are the children’s parents, and will likely continue to be the primary adult figures in the children’s lives. That is not to discount the role of stepparents, however. I can personally vouch for the love and sacrifice made by other parents who share no DNA with the children they live with and care for.
Some parents get how important stepparents are, appreciate their contribution, and will even go so far as to say “in your home, they can call you mom because you’re the mom of that house!” Understandably, most will not have this liberal or accepting of a view because of ill feelings associated with the divorce and a very natural sense of territorialism over their children. You can bet that many kids will never use names involving anything mom-related because their other parent has instructed them not to.
Sometimes, we take what we can get and accept the situation for what it is. Personally, I long for the “Egg” days. Yes, it’s a silly name, but it was something unique created just for me. I was their “Egg”, and not just an “Audrey.” On good days or bad, however, I know that the feelings and the bond are there. Whether they call me their bonus mom or “hey, you”, I know what our eight years together have meant. The name a stepparent answers to is just another part of the step experience, and this “Egg” by any other name still sounds sweet to me!
Audrey Cade, author of Divorce Matters: help for hurting hearts and why divorce is sometimes the best decision, is a matriarch of a stepfamily of six children and an experienced “divorce warrior” in the areas of co-parenting, stepparenting, parental alienation, and re-marriage. She is a featured blogger for DivorcedMoms, contributor for DivorceForce, Worthy Living and has been published in The Divorce Magazine, The Good Men Project, StepMom Magazine, and others. Her professional experience is a case manager social worker for developmentally-disabled children, and she holds degrees in Early Childhood Education, Human Service & Management, and a Master’s in Psychology. Follow Audrey on Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest. Listen each Wednesday to her weekly Divorce Warrior Dialog podcast on her website.